Maine voters reversed themselves on a contentious issue Tuesday by embracing the state's new anti-discrimination law, giving supporters of gay rights a convincing referendum win after two previous losses.
With 75 percent of Maine's 634 precincts reporting, unofficial returns showed Question 1, which would have repealed the law, going down to defeat, 56 percent to 44 percent. That means the law, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, takes effect immediately, making Maine the sixth and final state in New England to put such a law on the books.
Lauralee Raymond, left, of Hallowell, Cyndy Thayer, center, and Lynn Deeves, right, both of Augusta celebrate at campaign headquarters for 'Maine Won't Discriminate' in Portland, Maine, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2005. Mainers went to the polls and decided not to overturn the state's existing gay rights laws. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
"After 28 years, it's over, you guys. We won," Pat Peard, a longtime champion of gay rights, told supporters in Portland at 11 p.m. She was referring to the initial introduction of a gay rights bill in the Legislature in the 1970s, launching a struggle that has continued ever since.
The vote reversed a trend that dates back to 1998, when voters narrowly rejected a gay rights law in a special election. Voters again opposed a gay rights law in a follow-up referendum two years later.
Tuesday's referendum was held because opponents of the law used the so-called "people's veto" provision in the state Constitution to give voters a chance to repeal the law.
Both camps seemed to anticipate the outcome within two hours of the polls closing. By 10 p.m., a festive atmosphere prevailed at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland, where hundreds of supporters gathered to celebrate.
"It's a much-needed win for our national communities," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who was in Portland on Tuesday night. "Winning here shows that, through real dogged grassroots work, we can overcome the lies and distortions of our opponents."
"I think it's time now that we put the campaign behind us, think of Maine's future and get all of us to work together," said Gov. John Baldacci, who proposed the gay rights law to the Legislature earlier this year.
The mood was more somber at the Senator Inn in Augusta, where about 50 opponents of the law listened quietly as the returns trickled in. But Paul Madore of the Maine Grassroots Coalition continued to talk tough as the night wore on, saying the book will never close on what he called "the moral debate" over gay rights because "it's too important a law to let go."
Madore did not elaborate on the next step, but opponents of the law plan to hold a news conference in Augusta today.
The referendum was the biggest draw and the most contentious issue on the seven-question ballot, which featured no races for the Legislature, the Blaine House or Congress. Still, the off-year battle over gay rights was a relatively low-key campaign that concentrated on grassroots politics and get-out-the-vote efforts rather than a heavy advertising blitz.
The thinking was that there were few undecided voters, so it made more sense for each side to mobilize its base than to try to sway the few who had not made up their minds.
As Melody Clifton of Windham said Tuesday when she voted for repeal at Windham High School: "Most people have their minds made up when they come in here."
Marvin Druker, a political scientist at Lewiston-Auburn College, speculated that the law's supporters may have "learned their lesson" this time around, "sticking to business, finding out who their voters were and getting them out to vote."
Druker also said society has become more accepting of gays and lesbians, that the law had prominent mainstream supporters and that Mainers alleging they have been discriminated against came forward to tell their stories.
The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit and education. It defines sexual orientation as "a person's actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality or gender identity or expression."
The law says it is not intended to redefine marriage, which a separate state law defines as the union of a man and a woman. But opponents of the law, led by the Christian Civic League of Maine and the Maine Grassroots Coalition, argued during the campaign that keeping the gay rights law on the books would pave the way for legalizing same-sex marriage.
Maine Won't Discriminate, which led the fight to retain the law, countered that the law had nothing to do with marriage. Supporters said discrimination against gays and lesbians is a fact of life in Maine, so the Legislature did the right thing by amending the Human Rights Act to ban such practices.
Voters who backed the law said they did so because discrimination is wrong, regardless of the basis for it. "People have the right to be who they are" without worrying about losing a job or an apartment as a result, said singer Kattie Webber of Farmingdale.
Jeanne Christie, who moved from the Washington, D.C., area to Windham three years ago, said the gay rights law reflected a strong Maine value that is attractive to newcomers like her.
"As people from away, that is one of the things that is important to us about Maine, that people are tolerant," she said.
Some voters who backed repeal Tuesday made no mention of the marriage-is-next argument as they left polling places in Augusta and Farmingdale, but Clifton said the possibility of same-sex marriage played a role in her vote to repeal.
"I genuinely feel that we should not give anyone special rights," said George Jablon of Augusta, who is retired. "We built the greatest nation in the world on biblical principles, and now we've abandoned that."
Pat Shaw of Farmingdale, a retiree who voted to repeal the law, said supporters of gay rights should have dropped the issue after Mainers twice rejected such laws in previous campaigns. "It's an old issue and they're just beating it to death," Shaw said.
The referendum campaign effectively began when the Legislature passed Baldacci's gay rights bill March 30. He signed the bill into law the next day, and opponents quickly began circulating petitions to force a repeal referendum, or "people's veto."
The law's supporters raised and spent much more money than the law's detractors.
Four political action committees that urged voters to keep the law had raised almost $930,000 by late last month, compared with less than $336,000 in receipts for two PACs that opposed the gay rights law. Both sides continued to raise and spend money in the waning days of the campaign.
- Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.